Arte Programmata: Freedom, Control, and the Computer in 1960s Italy | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Arte Programmata: Freedom, Control, and the Computer in 1960s Italy

Arte Programmata: Freedom, Control, and the Computer in 1960s Italy
Lindsay Caplan

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2022
328 pp., 47 b&w, 8 col. Paper $33.00
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0995-6.

Reviewed by: 
Ian Verstegen
March 2023

“Arte Programmata,” a name for Italian op and kinetic art movements, was introduced to American audiences with the Responsive Eye show in 1965, and quickly dismissed, ignoring the deep questions of subjectivity and collectivity the artists had been investigating. Lindsay Caplan’s Arte Programmata: Freedom, Control, and the Computer in 1960s Italy, recovers these elements with a deep history of the movement, beginning with the reaction against Arte Informale and embrace of anonymous work in collectives like Gruppo N (Padua) and Gruppo T (Milan) to a move toward environments and eventual abandonment of art under the pressures of commodification and recognition of the ineffectiveness of the art world to exert political change. 

This book is a rich and sophisticated narrative of the unfolding of Arte Programmata during the decade of the 1960s, as it socialized with other movements, addressing the rise of mass technologies, and pondering the best means for art to address the evolving reality of later twentieth century life. Caplan’s basic argument is that the artists of Arte Programmata – a political movement from the beginning – used the language of computers to solve the problem of “individual freedom in relation to systematic constraints” (p. 2). In this, the movement explored art as a means of modeling social collectivity.

In the first chapter, the baptism of Arte Programmata in the original showroom of Olivetti in Milan is recounted. “Programmed” art is strongly linked to computers as a strategy to both leave free play for the observer, however, within a context of group control. Chapter 2 charts the move toward a more controlling apparatus with designed environments, against the apparent limitations of the earlier art and against the burgeoning rise of commodity culture imported to Italy. According to Caplan, the rationale for this strategy was provided by cybernetics. Chapter 3 marks the end of the decade, when the artists of Arte Programmata abandoned computers, while it was embraced throughout the rest of the art world. The artists now expressed their ideas in the language of information theory. While other artists following Abraham Moles or Max Bense were relatively traditional, the artists of Arte Programmata pointed information theory toward political goals, to “probe the collective…dimension of aesthetic experience” (151). In the last chapter (4), we witness the dissolution of Arte Programmata as its artists migrate to become designers (progettatori), leaving the “artist” designation altogether. In this way, they solve the problem of art and social change by bringing design “within and through” the system (181). A hint of an uneasy reading is found in the portrayal of Massironi’s later academic writings as representing a “recurring, and symptomatic, tension…between ahistorical foundations for communication and contextual, contingent ones” (p. 208).

In fact, the trouble begins with the very premise of the book that the computer program provided the premise for their art. Although there are suggestive links between “programmare,” “programmazione,” “programmatore” and “programmata,” there is no evidence that the artists of Gruppo N were principally interested in computer technology. These artists always presented their work as a kind of meta-cognitive, “Gestalt” (meant both popularly, and technically) art form.

Historically, the hegemony of Gestalt psychology in Italy has to be taken into account because the centralization of doctoral education in Italy ensured that Gestalt psychology dominated through three personalities – Cesare Musatti, Fabio Metelli and Gaetano Kanizsa. This thinking, connected to a critique of “and-sum” approaches to cognition and nascent critiques of information theory and cybernetics, saturated Italy. Because Musatti and Kanizsa (and almost Metelli) worked at Olivetti, it is of interest how much their conception of computing was already “Gestalt.” Specifically, Massironi had read Köhler’s Gestalt Psychology when it came out in Italian translation in 1961 (Manfredo Massironi: Ricerca Visiva e Arte, Arte e Ricerca Visiva, 2007, p. 10). For this reason, and in spite of the rich technological and political background, blending computers and the rise and fall of the Italian Communist Party throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, does not explain the essential form of the core early monuments of Gruppo N and T. Nevertheless, if the computer with its fixed inputs and infinite combinations is used as a fruitful cultural analogy, the book has much to teach us about this deeply socially committed art.